Our Role in the Mission of God

A favorite New Testament book of mine is 1 Peter. I’m drawn to it often because the world it imagines is so much like the one I experience. In this letter, Christians are called to live as a contrast society to the world around them. The world around the Christians consisted of an evil empire, many forms of idolatry, and wild parties every weekend, if not every night.

Living among people committed to empire, idolatry, and indulgence, the author of 1 Peter commissioned his readers with these words:

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11–12 NIV)

Framing our relationship to the world, even empire, as “aliens and strangers,” the writer reminds us that we are “only passing through” this world, but more so, since Jesus’ kingdom does not belong to this world, neither do we. If we are indeed “aliens and strangers” to the empires of this world, we should not over-invest in them but rather give much more attention to the kingdom that will never end.

The biblical writer calls on his readers to do two things. 1) Give attention to spiritual formation; and 2) live out that formation among those who live around us. Regarding the first task, God seeks to remove the war within our own lives. Therefore, we should “abstain from sinful desires.” However, there is the second and larger concern here: That our lives (now at peace because of Jesus) might announce the kingdom of God to those who might even accuse us falsely. The end result of our lives, according to this text, is that others might be prepared to worship God when he comes again.

So let’s commit again to live the good life for the good of others.

Reconciliation

What a strange word! Not one I use in casual conversation and I suspect this is true for you as well. We might use it of a shaky marriage that has come back together but outside of that the word does not carry much weight in our daily lives. However, God meant reconciliation to be his primary mission in the world.

Imagine for a moment a life that is shattered into a thousand little pieces, a life that lacks any sense of coherency, filled with unconnected and unmanageable busy-ness, multi-tasking randomly through life. We call the pieces family life, church life, recreational life, work life, educational life, spiritual life, Christian life, etc. Yet, nothing seems to hold the threads together.

This sense of undone-ness is not only an individual thing; it affects our relationships, too. We, though surrounded by people in nearly everything we do, have never felt lonelier. Not only this, we have days when God feels so far away that life does not feel worth living.

However, Jesus came to give a new way of being, under a new covenant, one that gives life not death. In accepting this new covenant, we come into a new mission or ministry of new life and new creation undoing fragmentation and brokenness. To us, as new creations, all things become new and the old, though still present, is already disappearing.

Though we can still feel the tension between the brokenness of the past and the wholeness of the future, we know that we live for the future, not the past—for God’s future. Paul captures this tension well when he speaks of his ministry in these words,

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Cor. 5:8-12)

This life can be ours because Jesus died for us, one for all. This conviction is the center and core of our confession. Since Jesus died for us, he invites us to die to the brokenness of our lives, to repent of holding on to the old world, and allow the new world to invade our lives. This new life, however, does not end with us. God then turns us into agents, or ambassadors, of reconciliation. Our ministry to others brings life to them.

As Paul continues,

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:20)

Help the Lost Children

In yesterday’s sermon I told a story from my daughter’s childhood—it is always good to check with your spouse or kids before using them in an illustration, but Rachel signed off on this one years ago.

When Rachel was about two, maybe three, we moved to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. I was serving as the part-time outreach minister for a church just off the campus of UNC. Pat was seeking whatever work she could find as a teacher. We had just enough to survive so we found ourselves often window-shopping in the malls. On one particular occasion, the mall was hosting a sports card show. Since my wife loves sports, it did not take long for her to lose herself in the moment. Because of her excitement, I was soon there, too.

However, in a short period of time, Rachel slipped away from us. She was gone. We panicked and began a frenzied search for her, enlisting along the way any that would help us. During moments like this, time seems to stop and last forever. To this day, I can’t really tell you how long it took for us to find Rachel. Anxiety had seized us so that we were immobilized. Worse case scenarios began to fill our heads.

Time snapped back to normal when our daughter’s laughter came filtering down across the mall hallway. You can always distinguish your child’s laughter in much the same way that you can hear her in a room full of children. It was a joy to hear her laughter, but we were amazed to see her walking between two women. These strangers had found her and were seeking to help her. I never knew the strangers’ name; I wish I had. On that day they were some of the most important people to have entered our lives. They reunited our lost child with her parents.

Later, as I have reflected on this event, I’ve begun to see it as a parable for the church. In the same way these women restored our daughter to us, so it is God’s mission for the church to bring lost children back to their Father.

Do I Have a Witness?

Several times in his letters, Paul will give a personal reflection or testimony (as he does in Ephesians 3:1-13). There are several aims for why Paul would use a personal testimony.

First, it bridges the gap between Paul and his readers. In effect, Paul not only invites the readers to participate in his story but his story also serves as an exemplar of how God’s story frames our individual stories. Simply, God did this in my life; he can also do it in yours.

Second, by showing that God is actively involved in his life, it become more real. This is not just theory (though, in the Ephesians reading there is plenty of that). What God has done is actualized in the life of a real person such a Paul.

Finally, Paul will use testimony to give context to what might be an embarrassment in Paul’s story (see Eph 3:13). Paul is in prison; he is suffering. This does not square well with resurrection power that Paul had so confidently announced earlier (see Eph 1:19-20; 2:4-6).

When the chips are down is where the “theory,” or more accurately the “theology” part comes in. God has already acted; what that means is not yet fully clear. In this text, Paul believes that what God put into motion in the past was becoming a reality in Paul’s ministry.

Those formerly excluded from God’s people are now invited in. The big story in Paul’s testimony is that God was using him to announce that non-Jews (Gentiles) are now co-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in God’s promise (Eph. 3:6).

Paul has a testimony because his ministry is to announce this move of God. Paul understands that through him God is setting something big in motion—the implication of which were not yet visible.

This “not yet” part of God’s plan is bigger than we usually think or teach. It involves not just history (see “ages” in Eph 3:9) but future ages (see Eph 2:7). What God is up to is cosmic, universal and eternal—not just personal and individual.

Yet, God has called the church, the people of God, to be the instrument through whom God will announce his wisdom (Eph 3:10). This not merely evangelism, either, since the ones hearing the announcement from the church are “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” or angelic and demonic forces at work in our world. This is where our story ties with Paul.

We are that church and we have, as the text says, access to God. Thus we can walk in boldness and confidence through faith in him even when the circumstances around us suggest otherwise.

When we do this, we too have a testimony.

Can I have a witness?

Tear Down This Wall!

In 1987, President Reagan challenged the Russian leader: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity … Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Walls are rarely good things. They are usually marked with signs saying: “Keep out!”

Such a sign was discovered in 1871. It marked the boundary of the temple in Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed it in AD 70; it warned non-Jews that they could not enter.

Let no foreigner enter within the partition and enclosure surrounding the temple. Whoever is arrested will himself be responsible for his death which will follow.

Quite a few words to say, “Keep out!”

In the book of Acts, Jewish opponents of Paul charged that his gentile friends had violated this boundary (see Acts 21:27-28). They had not of course, but no wonder Paul found the demolishing of every wall separating Jews and Gentile to be central to the mission of God (Eph 2.11-21).

While Paul probably has this temple boundary in mind, the real wall is whatever divides God’s people from one another. In this case, the biggest divide among the ancient Christians would have been this Jewish-Gentile divide. So, if God has removed the biggest wall imaginable to a first century Christian, what does that say about any of our lesser divides?

Jesus, according to Paul, tore the wall down. Outsiders—formerly known as those without Christ, aliens to God’s people, and strangers to God’s promises, people with no hope and no God—are now invited to join God’s people. Jesus in giving his life paved the way for outsiders to become insiders. What Jesus did on the cross now creates equal access to God. So now the outsiders are no longer strangers or aliens, but full citizens of God’s kingdom, members of God’s household.

Moreover, there is no longer the recognition of two groups but one group who are joined together to form one new temple. It is fitting then that this text should end with an image of a single temple, don’t you think?

Formerly the insiders denied admittance to those who were outsider. Now, together, hand-in-hand, the two have come together to form a holy temple where God lives.

So if God through Jesus can remove the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, what should we do to the lesser walls we sometimes construct in the life of the church between ins and outs, rich and poor, African-American and Caucasian, males and females, young and old, and so forth?

And the church said, “Tear down this wall!”

Powerful Prayer

Ever pray just to make it? Sometimes, so it seems, that is the best we can do. We go from one fire to another, praying we will have the resources to put out the next one. It does not take much of this kind of living to bring us to despair.

However, there is another way of living, a more proactive, powerful way. Paul models that for us in his prayer to the Ephesians (1:15-23 which resumes in 3.14-21). Paul prays that God might give his readers a “spirit of wisdom and revelation.” While is not clear here whether Paul is referencing the Holy Spirit or that the Ephesians might gain the quality of wisdom and revelation, it is clear that both wisdom and revelation are gifts from God.

With wisdom, we can see past the next fire; we can see that some of our fires are the results of our loosely lived lives; and we could more readily live in sync with God’s life.

With revelation, we could see what God had in store for us and more readily anticipate the future. Most of us have the ability to predict more of the future than we practice. Certain ways of living produce life; others, death. One does not have to be religious to figure this out. God’s revelation in our life allows us to see this even more clearly.

Both of these gifts, wisdom and revelation, are supernatural—they come only from God.

Yet Paul seeks a particular outcome for God’s gifts of wisdom and revelation—that we might know Jesus! The NIV translation’s addition of the word “better” is probably correct on the sense of the text—after all the original readers were already Christians—yet it softens the sense that outcome here is to know Jesus.

Thus now Paul prays that the “eyes” of our hearts might be enlightened. This is also the work of God. While “eyes of our minds” might be more natural to the way we think today, “eyes of our hearts” captures the sense that Paul hopes we will see God at our deepest levels, in our heart of hearts.

Paul wants us to see three things: 1) the hope we have because God has called us; 2) the glorious rich inheritance we have among God’s people; and 3) the incredible power we can access as believers in Jesus.

Each of these is worth exploring, but Paul really wants us to get the last one. He really lathers up the descriptors: “the overabundant greatness of his power for us who believe based on the energy of the might of his strength” (my literal translation).

This same power, according to Paul,

  • raised Jesus from the dead,
  • seated him at the right hand of God,
  • raised him above every name, even of angelic and demonic forces,
  • made every thing subject to him, and
  • placed him as supreme in the church over everything.

That is a lot of power! And it is available for those who believe. You don’t have to live fire to fire because we have the power to live triumphant lives in Jesus. All you have to do is ask for it and then begin to live as if you have it.

In on God’s Plan?

I can answer that question in only one sentence. Well, it’s not really my answer. I find it in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. However, the sentence is a long one as it begins in 1:3 and goes through v. 14. Most English translations will break this into smaller sentences since English does not bear the weight of the original well.

Not only is this a very complex sentence, the content is some of the richest in the entire Bible. The text (1:3-15) takes the form of a synagogue blessing. Paul begins this letter with a call to worship that blesses God for blessing us with all spiritual blessings.

In what follows some of those blessing are enumerated with potent verbs: God chose us (v. 4); he predestined us (v. 5); and he freely gave or bestowed his grace on us (v. 6) because of Jesus.

But more so, he chose us with particular outcomes in mind: he chose us to be holy and blameless and he predestined us to be adopted as his children. In other words, God has called us into a certain kind of life, a different way of living, that is, to live like God would live.

Paul further describes in 1:7-11 what it means to have God’s grace poured on us. Thus we have what the Bible calls “redemption.” This means that the world no longer has a claim on us, God has “bought us back” so we now belong to him to live out his purpose.

Furthermore, we now know that our sins, faults, and trespasses are forgiven because of God’s rich grace. Yet, Paul pushes us beyond an individualistic reading of the text; he forces us beyond the capacity of human imagination. As believers in Jesus, we now have an inside track on what God is up to. God’s plan includes the entire universe, not just individual humans. It involves pulling the broken universe (whether in heaven or earth) back together again (see v. 10). Paul is insistent that it is because of Jesus that all of this is possible.

Thus, in this context of God’s cosmic plan, we are “heirs” invited to participate in reclaiming the world for all that is good and right. We can be sure we are heirs because God has given us the symbol of the future. The Holy Spirit “seals us” or marks us as heirs, as those who belong especially to God.

While this passage is a long and winding text, the point is simple: God had a plan, Jesus made it possible, and the Holy Spirit guarantees it . . . and . . . as believers in Jesus we are not only a part of God’s mission but participants in it.

God’s Partners in God’s Mission

While I am certain that we should see ourselves as working for God, I’m amazed and humbled by apostle Paul’s insistence that we work with God, more as a partner than an employee or even a slave. In one place, Paul will assert that he is among “God’s fellow workers” and that those benefiting from his and other’s ministry are “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3.9).

In another place, Paul will talk about how his ministry is not based on his competency but on a kind of competency that comes from God (2 Cor. 3.5). Even more, Paul will root Christian ministry in sharing or participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus any suffering we might experience in ministry is like Christ’s own giving of his life for the sake of others (see 2 Cor. 4.7-12).

Therefore, in partnership with God, Christian ministry is a participation in the mission of God. God’s mission is nothing short of inviting people into a relationship with God that will shape them into a distinct people who live their lives for the sake of others.

Another way to frame God’s mission is that God seeks all people to become re-connected with or reconciled to him. God then recreates us in the image of Jesus to become agents of reconciliation and healing. This is based not on our competency—since even we needed help to become reconciled.

However, once reunited with God, we are initiated into God’s own project of healing the world. Paul calls us “Christ ’s ambassadors.” This is fitting language as we now belong to God’s kingdom but we have been called to serve as God’s delegates to bring Good News to the world.

Churches, then, should function something like embassies. Churches are God’s embassies in a foreign land to support the interests of God’s kingdom. However, an embassy also functions to help foreigners find out more about the embassy’s country and even help people who would like to enter that country to find out how to do that.

As representatives of God’s kingdom, therefore, we speak for our King. As Paul said, we implore on Christ’s behalf—as though God were making his appeal through us. Our appeal or petition is that people would become reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5.20) and that is truly the mission of God

Matthew’s Christmas: For the Sake of the World

Imagine that we had a chance to hear the old tax collector-turned apostle Matthew tell his story.

As we knocked on the door, we would have waited as the old man moved his fragile body to the door. We would have been warmly received, as Matthew was well known for giving the best parties back in the day.

As we entered the house, we would have noticed the pictures hanging in the entryway. These pictures honored the ancestors who had paved the way for God’s mission to the world. Among the pictures were those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, Solomon, Zerubbabel, and lesser-known personalities, like Akim, Matthan, and finally a Joseph.

The few women among the pictures were somehow out-of-place: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and then one picture simply read: “Formerly Uriah’s wife.” Next to the picture of Joseph was that of very young woman named “Mary.” Had we the courage to ask Matthew about this very small but odd collection of women, Matthew might have reminded us that in God’s story there is always room for the outsider.

Once we finally entered Matthew’s living room and after he stoked the fire to make sure we were all comfortable, he would begin his tale. Unexpectedly, we would be jarred by the Christmas story beginning in a bit of a scandal. Joseph actually wanted to divorce Mary because she was pregnant—maybe the women in the collection have more in common than previously thought.

Matthew would regale us with the story of the “magi,” stargazers from a far away land who came to worship Jesus. Again Matthew reminds us, there is always room for outsiders. Against the backdrop of this story, Matthew would tell us about Herod’s deceitful plan to “worship” Jesus and how Herod’s envy set in motion the incident in Bethlehem.

Matthew himself is visibly shaken as he recalls the events the day Herod sent troops to exterminate the baby boys of Bethlehem to ensure there would be no contenders for his throne, not now, not ever. Not exactly what one expects to hear as part of the Christmas story.

Now we are visibly shaken—not understanding why God would let this happen and why God did not intervene. Matthew responds to our uneasiness. “Don’t you see God entered our world just as it is.”

* If you found this take on Matthew’s version of the nativity intriguing, you might enjoy this: http://www.wineskins.org/filter.asp?SID=2&co_key=1962.

So That — Outcomes of God’s Mission

Almost any place you look in the Bible, you can find God’s mission to form a distinct people. In the Old Testament, God formed the nation of Israel to bear witness to God’s continuing creative work in the world.

In the New Testament, in the ministry of Jesus and later the ministry of the church, the mission of God remains central. God’s purpose remains forming a distinct people to live a God-shaped life for the sake of the world. The mission of God stands out even in the little letter called 1 John.

Emphasizing that God’s love has been lavished on beleaguered believers, the apostle John points at several outcomes, or “so thats” that result from God’s active mission. These “so thats” are somewhat veiled in English translation, so I would like to draw these out for you.

God’s Mission through Jesus was so that:

  • We should be called the children of God (1 John 3:1)
  • Jesus might take away our sins (3:5)
  • Jesus might destroy the work of the devil (3:8)
  • We might believe in his name (3:23)
  • We might love one another (3:11, 23)

That God, the God of the universe, should invite us into a relationship is amazing. Not only is God willing to claim us as his children but we increasingly become to look like our Father. As God’s children we have the same inheritance as his rightful Son. The apostle here promises that we will see Jesus because we will become like him (3:2).

Part of the process of getting us to the place where we look like Jesus is that God must deal with sin. The NIV adds “our” before the word sin, but this is not in the original. It is not just personal sin that God must remove but even cosmic sin, so to speak. Sin can also be seen as a force at work in our world; sometimes we call it evil.

Sin is the Bible’s word for that power at work in our world that causes things to fall apart. Thus, John aptly asserts that Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil. While people today may not easily buy into a real devil and may even scoff at the notion of sin: they know the effect of this evil, whether personal or diabolical—relationships that don’t work, innocent people suffering, countries vying for power by diminishing others, loneliness, drug addictions, and this list could go on.

Yet, because God has acted, we believe in the name of Jesus—that for Jesus sake, new possibilities can emerge. Thoughtful Christians are not oblivious to the fact that we live in a world that appears hopelessly broken. It is precisely against this brokenness that Jesus makes sense.

And in the midst of this brokenness, you still find groups of Jesus-followers who love one another. This, perhaps, is the greatest testimony that God is completing the mission he started.